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Vegetative Matter

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In February, a couple dozen of our friends and relatives made the windy, rainy trek to Humboldt County for the grand reopening of our bookstore. It was yet another winter family gathering. They’ve been here before at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and now, after having made the journey in February, they probably think that Eureka has nothing to offer but gray skies and storms.

They probably also think that I am a completely incompetent gardener, which is not entirely off the mark. However, the garden is at its worst in February, and I was embarrassed to have anyone even look out the window over that weekend.

The backyard, which I have come to call the “chicken yard,” is the worst. It’s planted with tough perennials that grow into larger and larger clumps every year and produce nothing that the chickens would be tempted to eat. What that means is that in the winter, the chicken yard is nothing but mud and scraggly little patches of green. A vacant lot looks better than my backyard in February.

Then the family goes away, and summer rolls around, and the garden positively explodes. Right now it is awash with Shasta daisies, some of which are almost as tall as I am. I have two chairs in the middle of the backyard; when you sit down in the chairs, you completely disappear. I’ve never liked gardens that are nothing more than a carpet of flowers on the ground — I like to be enveloped in a garden, to be completely surrounded by it, to look plants in the eye rather than having to bend over and study them. And that’s the kind of garden I’ve ended up with.

What astonishes me is that so much vegetative matter is getting created in my backyard everyday. Biomass that wasn’t there yesterday is there today. Plant cells are multiplying and dividing at a rate that I can’t even fathom. I have about an eighth-grader’s understanding of how this is all possible — and I say “about” because I’m pretty sure that if an eighth-grader called up and quizzed me on botany, I might come up short — but still, the rampant, freakish growth that happens in the garden this time of year is mostly not explained by my rudimentary botanical knowledge. It’s simply astonishing and perplexing. After all, this garden gets nothing more than chicken manure and ground-up bits of last year’s garden as food. No Miracle Gro, no magic potions, no special techniques, not even any well thought-out plant selection. So how is this possible?

I wondered. And then I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about the effects of carbon dioxide on weeds. A group of USDA scientists wanted to do some studies in a laboratory to predict what effects climate change would have on weed growth, but wouldn’t you know it, the budget to study climate change has been slashed. So this scientist — a guy named Lewis Ziska — stumbled across a vacant lot in Baltimore that just happened to mirror the higher CO2 levels and higher temperatures that scientists are forecasting for the future. He planted some weeds in a vacant lot and compared them to weeds he planted in a couple of test plots around the country.

The Baltimore weeds exploded. Lambs quarters hit twelve feet tall in a single season. One weedy exotic tree species that normally reaches five feet made it to twenty. An invasive grass produced seventy percent more biomass than it normally would. And that’s not all — these mutant weeds spewed out more pollen and shrugged off herbicides. They were not only bigger and stronger, they were actually invincible.

Why is that such a big deal, you ask? Perhaps you’re thinking this will be good for the planet, because the plants will gobble up all that CO2 and turn it into nice healthy oxygen. Not so fast. The carbon hasn’t gone anywhere, according to scientists who are better at explaining this than I am. The plants and the soil simply can’t store all the excess carbon; there won’t be enough nitrogen to break it all down; it just doesn’t work that way, etc. etc.

So now my cute cottage-garden backyard is starting to freak me out. It’s all very Jurassic Park out there. I have to fight my way through the undergrowth just to get around. Both my pruning shears and my hand shovel have disappeared into the thicket; I’m thinking of buying a machete and a blowtorch for my next set of gardening tools.

Now if only there was something out there that I could eat. Many of you have written in to express sympathy over the gopher invasion of the straw bale garden. More updates soon. Meanwhile, I’m going to go outside and feel anxious while my plants grow. Stay tuned.

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